March clashes with Pulaski over zoning violations

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Of the. Marie March, the entrepreneur, freshman lawmaker, and Brandon Republican from Floyd County, has been embroiled in a legal dispute with Pulaski County for months over alleged zoning violations relating to the Big Red Barn, a location of event it acquired last June to host agritourism business and political speeches. What started as a spat between March and local officials has since quickly turned into litigation and allegations of threats.

More than a year after purchasing the property for $400,000, March appears to be continuing to operate his business in violation of current zoning laws, County Administrator Jonathan Sweet said in an interview Wednesday. telephone. “To date, she has shown little willingness to cooperate,” he said.

March, however, considers himself a victim of politically motivated bullying. “I have been appalled at the political games being played by the BOS (Board of Supervisors) and the county administrator,” she wrote in an Aug. 5 letter to the editor of The Patriot, a newspaper conservative local.

“From day one I received threats, bullying and intimidation from Jonathan Sweet,” March wrote. “He just sent the county attorney’s new threat and is trying to get us to apply for a special use permit to use our barn. It reminds me of the story I read a while ago about a kid who wasn’t allowed to ride a dirt bike in his own backyard. A flagrant violation of his property rights.

But county officials said they still have no idea what kind of businesses March operates from the 10-acre property at 4241 Lee Highway, and they’ve received numerous complaints that various land uses violate several sections of the Pulaski County Unified Development Ordinance (UDO), which allows potential purchasers of a property to know in advance the uses they can put to their own property and to anticipate the uses which can be made of neighboring properties.

“Mrs. March bought it, she made some minor upgrades, and then she started advertising on Facebook and other social media platforms. Then she starts having political functions there, which which is fine. However, she was running a full commercial operation of it and the neighbors started to have concerns,” Sweet said. “We are trying to figure out what the actual uses are, but unfortunately because lawyers are involved, it drags on.”

For example, Sweet said there were security issues with entering and leaving March’s property. “Indeed, a zoning request had been refused to the former owner because of a lack of commercial entry. Neighbors and other citizens were bringing their concerns to us and, ultimately, it is our job to ensure the safety and well-being of the public,” Sweet said. “And we have to make sure there are proper exit signs, disabled spaces and all those things, and we have to protect the interests of neighbors to make sure their rights aren’t violated.”

Because March was initially unresponsive, Sweet went to visit him at his property on March 15. He was accompanied by Scott Macdonald, a building official, and Markie Saunders, the UDO acting administrator.

“We’ve done a site visit and provided all the necessary guidance, and we’ve tried to figure out what operations are going to be going on there,” Sweet said. “We discovered that there was a body shop in one of the outbuildings. This is after Marie said they only held political office there,” he said. “Then we go online and see that she advertises weddings, birthday parties, happy hours and ‘anything your heart desires’ out of this establishment.”

The website has since been deleted of all references to businesses and services offered by the Big Red Barn, except for its community worship center, and links to social media have been disabled.

The county decided not to cite March for anything, but asked him to submit his plans for the property so it could be determined whether it was zoning or not. “But she actually just refused to oblige and during the correspondence she somewhat denied that a body shop was operating there, she said a guy was working on some vehicles. And that’s when that all sorts of advertisements for his events were going on.

In order to operate a business in Pulaski County, every business owner must obtain a business license filed with the Office of the Commissioner of Revenue and also file an application for a zoning permit which is required whenever a property or a existing building changes use or occupancy, Ashlyn Shrewsbury, the county’s director of community development and planning and zoning, wrote in response to the March letter in The Patriot. “It’s not a huge request, and the zoning permit is only $25,” Shrewsbury wrote.

Although the property has since received a commercial license, March has yet to apply for a special use permit. In conjunction with the latter, a landlord must also indicate what types of businesses the property will be used for in order to ensure that the zoning of the property matches those uses.

Shrewsbury wrote that depending on the types of businesses the Big Red Barn itself has marketed its property, several requirements must be met to operate a legal business. “For example, to operate as a wedding venue in an agricultural zoning district, which is conditional use, the property must be at least five acres; provide proof of proper parking, entry, and exit from the Virginia Department of Transportation; and there must be toilets available,” among other requirements.

In order to operate as an event center, a special use permit must be obtained from the Planning and Zoning Office for $150, which is then subject to County Planning Commission approval. “All of these types of uses have been marketed by the owners and staff of Big Red Barn,” Shrewsbury wrote.

Sweet said in an email Thursday that although March has since been approved for a commercial license, she still does not have approval through a required special use permit, despite holding the various events that took place and are taking place here. , such as large flea markets, all of which require a permit.

March also failed to provide “a demonstration of VDOT approval for proper entry and exit for these large events requiring special use permits,” Sweet said, adding that the only uses she is approved with change of use are for agritourism and worship center. which now operates on the site on Sundays.

Two weeks after county officials visited the property, the Planning and Zoning Department asked March to submit his plans for his property, along with a signed affidavit of the farm structure, as the buildings and structures are exempt from the Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code (USBC) if a structure is used for a specific purpose that is directly related to an agricultural operation.

Because March did not respond to these requests, Sweet sent her an email on April 14, reminding her that she continued to operate an unlicensed business on her property and that the county remained committed to working with her to attempting to “fix building code, zoning and business”. Permission issues with your ongoing advertised operations of the facility. Sweet also warned her that running a business without a license could “potentially be a Class II misdemeanor,” punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The correspondence escalated when March accused Sweet of threatening her with criminal charges. “Do you treat all new owners with such treatment or is this just a political attack?” she wrote, to which Sweet replied that the county had “bent over backwards” to help her and “turned a blind eye” after discovering a body shop operating on her premises.

After several increasingly heated exchanges — all of which were obtained by Cardinal News — Sweet turned the case over to County Attorney Tim Kirtner, who on July 25 notified March and his company Big Bear Properties LLC of multiple violations. zoning, allowing 30 days to process the latter or potentially face “legal enforcement.”

Ten days later, March published his letter to the editor in The Patriot. “I believe there are extremely dirty political games at play in Pulaski County,” she wrote. “If the BOS and the county administrator enjoyed bullying me, I genuinely worry about how they treat you as a taxpayer! Arrogance and corruption in government always comes from the top down !

Later in August, a lawyer for Big Bear Properties submitted a change of use request for his client, which Sweet takes as confirmation that March is aware that she has been operating for five months in noncompliance.

“It should have been a long time ago. It’s almost as if his attorney admits they were wrong. They did minimally what they needed to do to appear to be zoning compliant, but they left out a lot of uses,” he said. “She thinks the laws don’t apply to her, and how dare someone try to apply any kind of rule or structure to what she wants to do. Zoning is to protect you from your neighbor and your neighbor from you, it’s a two-way street. We were just trying to find out what she wanted to do there.

Sweet said that throughout the time March operated her businesses, the county never slapped her with any violations.

“The moral of this story is we were set up, the county was set up,” Sweet said. “She taunted us and refused to comply, refused what any normal business owner would do, disrespected her neighbors and ultimately we had to explain to her that there are consequences to not not comply, and we did so very respectfully. And that’s what she expected, she wanted to pretend to be a victim.

March Thursday did not respond to phone calls and text messages.